Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Washington Post Sports/Caps Media Watch: Is Anyone Going to Ask McPhee A Tough Question?

Last Thursday, while most local hockey fans had their attention on the epic U.S.-Canada women's gold medal match, Caps General Manager George McPhee held his first press conference in almost three months. You would think that reporters who have gone so long without being able to talk  to the general manager of a disappointing team like the Caps would be bursting with tough questions to ask about some of the team's odd personnel moves in recent months, as well as want to press him on the reasons behind his team's poor showing this year. Well, you'd be wrong. The Caps press corps both failed to ask enough tough and pointed questions about the many issues surrounding this team during the half-hour they had with the GM, while also almost completely ignoring one of the most newsworthy statements McPhee made last week.

Let's start with that newsworthy statement I mentioned. In response to one of the best questions of last week's session --"Is there any regret on making that Erat deal last year?" -- McPhee came really close to saying yes (he certainly didn't say no) and also said something that will trouble a lot of Caps fans for the next week until the trade deadline is here:

"Time will tell. You guys will be the judge of that, I’ll have my own opinions of it, sometimes a trade doesn’t go your way, I’m never going to bat 1.000, but I will always continue to try and help the club that’s on the ice, and if there’s something at the deadline that we think’s going to help this club that’s been battling all year, we’re going to do it--and I will trade picks and young players again to make this team better if that’s what’s necessary."
Two things about this McPhee quote--in particular the part about trading picks and young players--and its treatment by the Caps media bother me. One is that while it strikes me as the most important quote of the press conference, it has barely appeared anywhere. Other than in Sky Kerstein's Twitter feed, and buried a the bottom of a lengthy Chuck Gormley blog post on his Caps' blog on the CSN Washington website, this quote, which both begs for elaboration and goes to the heart of figuring out what this team will do in the next few days, has not been printed or discussed in the Post or any other Caps mainstream media news source.

But perhaps even more disappointing is what happened after this McPhee answer -- the
Caps beat reporters passed up the opportunity for asking any followup questions that would draw the general manager out and make him explain how he sees his team. The next question was "Are you damned if you do and damned if you don't?" (well, of course, GMs are always going to get criticism for the moves they do or don't make--that's part of the job--the question is why is he making the moves he's making), followed by a reasonable question --"Do you have one area that you would pinpoint, try to bolster" at the deadline--that GMGM avoided by saying he didn't want to single one position out because that would be seen as criticism of those players. And then the assembled press corps moved on to discussing when Martin Erat would return from visiting his wife and new child in Nashville.

The logical followup, in my opinion, would be a question asking McPhee how he sees this Capitals team if he's willing to trade young players and draft picks this year. Does he still consider it a Stanley Cup contender that with a move or two has a legitimate shot at a long playoff run, or would he trade a young prospect for a veteran in order to make the playoffs (a move that many observers might see as trying to save his job at the expense of the future of the team)? And if he avoids that question, ask it a different way: "George, from 2009-11, this team was finishing near or at the top of the conference every year and clinching a playoff spot weeks before the end of the regular season, and was considered a legitimate Cup contender. But this will be the third consecutive year that the team has been in the middle of the pack in the conference and will once again likely go to the last week of the season before clinching a playoff spot, if it does so at all. Should we really still consider this team a Stanley Cup contender?"

And then there's perhaps the most puzzling question of the Caps' season: "When this team has struggled in the past couple years, the thought was that if Alex Ovechkin could get back to scoring on a 50-goal pace, the team would be fine. Well, now he's scoring at a 55-goal pace, and yet this team is still struggling. How do you explain that?" These are the kinds of questions that really go to the heart of where this Caps team is and where it may be going--why aren't they being asked?

That's not to say there weren't valuable questions asked during the press conference. (A full list of the questions asked appears at the end of this post.) The simple "How do you evaluate this team?" and "Right now, you're 11th in the conference. Is that a fair assessment of how good this team is?" are good questions that give McPhee a chance to explain himself. But when he comes back with "we can be better than how we played" but that "we're in an excellent conference with a lot of good teams" when in fact they're in a not particularly good conference with a lot of mediocre teams, isn't someone going to call him out on that? When McPhee says that he's happy with the way the Caps played over the last eight games because the "metrics" were good, is anyone going to ask him what "metrics" he is using and why he thinks the last eight games--in which the team was a good but hardly scintillating 5-3-1 against a slate of mostly mediocre or worse teams--are more representative of this team than the first 51?

And then there were the questions that weren't even asked, but were probably of interest to many Caps fans. Here are five I came up with:

  • You were quoted by Joe Micheletti on television a couple weeks ago as saying that your goaltenders had cost you ten points this year. Is that a correct quote, and, if so, can you explain what you meant by that? Do you think goaltending is the major reason this team is underperforming this year? (McPhee did bring up, unprompted, the "soft stretch" the goalies had in response to a question, but didn't get into detail)
  • Nate Schmidt and Michael Latta were both pretty good players up here in the early part of the season. With the recent injuries at both defenseman and center, why were they not brought up to the big club and will they be brought up for the playoff push?
  • Tom Wilson has only been playing a few minutes a night, he's had lots more fights than goals, and his role has basically become the team's enforcer. Do you think that's the proper role for him? FOLLOWUP: When do you foresee him getting a chance to show more of his offensive skills, and does the fact that the three right wings ahead of him on the depth chart are signed through next year make it tough to find a bigger role for him?
  • You've had a lot of changes at the third-line center position this year, and lately Adam has been playing Eric Fehr out of position there. Do you miss Matthieu Perreault, and can you explain why you let him go for such a low return? (Remember, George McPhee, as far as I can tell, has NEVER been asked about anything to do with the Perreault trade, from why he basically gave him way to what was the rationale for the move in the first place. And yes, I know it was likely a salary cap based transaction, but can we at least get him on the record on that?)
  • You've previously said that almost all players benefit from some time to develop in the minors. If that's true, then why is Connor Carrick in the NHL right now? He has shown some offensive skills, but has struggled in his own end. Is it just because this team is really thin on defense, and are you worried you may be impeding his development by rushing him?

I know beat writers have a tough job--they can be on the road a lot, they have to interview players who often say the same unexciting things after every loss, etc. And I know that there's a reason why they ask, for instance, nine different questions about Ovechkin and his father's health situation (including stuff like how well McPhee knew the senior Ovechkin)--because they all knew their editors would want them to write a story about that later that day and they need as much info and color as possible to fill out the story. But I don't think it's too much to ask that when the GM of one of the most disappointing teams in the league--and one that has been in a steady decline for the last three years--speaks to you for the first time since Thanksgiving, he should at least spend that half hour on somewhat of a hot seat. And yet after watching that press conference, it appears McPhee didn't even really need to break a sweat.

Questions asked of George McPhee at the Feb. 20 press conference (this is a rough transcription from the video posted on the Caps website):
Adam said you’d be able to give us an idea on Ovi’s timetable and when he’ll be able to leave Sochi
So he’s in Moscow?
Probably one of those things—that careful balance between family and sports—he didn’t know…
Can you appreciate that … relationship that they have, because they appear to be very close…?
That obviously puts things that have happened in the last day in perspective. ..Given that extra emotional strain, are you worried about him?
He is OK now?
Is that a concern of yours…you probably know [the senior Ovechkin], he’s around a lot, do you feel that on a personal level?
Knowing what was expected of that team and some of the criticisms and nastiness that can come out of that, how do you want Ovi to walk away from this?
You’ve spoken with him directly? How’s he doing when you combine everything that’s going on?
Is it your expectation that Kuznetsov will be a part of this team this season?
Can you clear up what the process is once he finishes [his season]?
How would you evaluate this team?
Are you worried—you guys have a very tough schedule…
Through the first 59 games, what did you see as the biggest shortcomings, areas of concern?
How concerned have you been—you mentioned the soft stretch the goalies had—with the depth you have, the group you have now…
You’ve had so many defensemen come up—do you feel that’s an area that needs to be addressed before the deadline?
I feel like all season how close so many teams are, does that make it less likely to have moves of any real magnitude unless you’re swapping salary?
Does this trade deadline pose a different challenge—two and a half week break and then four or five games before the deadline—you have very little time to see where you are
You are able to discuss [trades with other teams while under the freeze]?
Right now this team is 11th in the conference. Is that a fair assessment of how good this team is?
You would prefer to not live on the edge?
What have you thought of Brooks? Last year was rough year, what about this year?
What have you learned this season, in Adam’s first full season, ab out him as a coach and things going not the way everyone would like them to?
Coaches go through evolutions like players do. Do you see a difference in him as he goes through this process, just like they would?
You’ve had three players ..ask for trades. I’m sure it’s not an easy situation you’re put in when that happens. Can you walk us through where things stand with those players?
Do you respect that [a face-to-face trade request] in a player?
You’ve seen how this year has gone—is there any regret on making that Erat deal last year?
Are you damned if you do and damned if you don’t?
Do you have one area that you would pinpoint, try to bolster?
Marty Erat, what is the plan for him coming back?
Did she have the baby while she was in Sochi?
Do you have any expectation of [Alex] being with the team when the season resumes?
There’s no a required report back date?
There’s been a lot of debate about the NHL participating in the Olympics in the future? Where do you stand on that?
Do you also feel that with the Olympics that it has to be all in or not?
Do you have a rooting interest tomorrow?
USA cap and Canada cap? Which one would you wear?
You root for health above all?
Do you not see the exposure, the interest in Olympic hockey helps your game grow?
Callups today—is that more to have some bodies here for practice?
We’ve seen injuries and players come up from Hershey. Any impressed you more than you thought?